Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
A 20th century American childhood, all in one room.
Stashed away in a third-floor room of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is the United States' largest public-trust collection of architectural toys. Some of these toys are still household names, sure to figure in the museum's big toy exhibit this November: Erector Sets, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs. Others are one-offs like Guidancetown U.S.A., classics like Anchor Blocks, or foreign imports like Le Roi des Constructeurs. But whether they were prized playtime possessions or dusty-stacked attic dwellers, all architectural toys are equal here. Their playing days are over.
These 2,300-odd toys were assembled by a Chicago English teacher named George Wetzel, who spent 25 years searching trade shows and thrift stores for toys of a quality he felt was no longer in production. The toys now inhabit the dizzying metal shelves of the Building Museum's archives, skyscrapers in their own right, where a rolling metal staircase like you might see at Home Depot helps curators and archivists access the New Pretty Village or Toy Town Peg Board when a curious visitor comes a-calling.
There are five sections of childhood fun here: stone, wood, metal, cardboard, and plastic. A German education theorist and toymaker named Friedrich Fröbel developed some of the first sets of stone toys, which accompanied Fröbel's most famous invention, the Kindergarten, to the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. There, a wooden iteration of the toy sets entered history when Frank Lloyd Wright's mother obtained a box for her son. "These smooth wooden maple blocks…all are in my fingers to this day," the architect wrote. (It is said that they also influenced Buckminster Fuller and Albert Einstein.) These wooden boxes of faceless dominoes, known as Fröbel's Gifts – along with the stone Richter’s Anchor Blocks they inspired – were soon a common sight in well-off city homes.
The Wright family's connection to toys did not end there. While his father established American Modernism, John Lloyd Wright invented Lincoln Logs. The collection at the National Building Museum includes several hundred iterations of the quintessential wooden building toy, in signature cylindrical canisters, and their many imitators: American Logs, Canadian Logs, etc. The company sold "expansion packs" for practically any situation. Some, like the Cowboys and Indians figurine pack, didn't have any logs at all.
Stephanie Hess, who is curating the November exhibition "PLAY WORK BUILD," is in the process of selecting and sometimes assembling these toys for the public. Don't be fooled by the rustic architecture of Lincoln Logs, she says: building these things is a challenge. From the days of Fröbel's Gifts, architectural toys were sold to parents as an education in logic disguised for children as fun. They were called gifts not only because they were meant to be presents but because they would showcase your child's inner gifts. (Fun always came with a caveat: some early American toys had bible scripture written on the blocks themselves.)
The line between play and problem-solving shifts in the metal toys, which are dominated by Erector Sets, packaged in heavy, hardy toolboxes that signify their workmanlike intentions. Are these toys? I'm not sure. It doesn't seem fair to put the more complex sets, neat arrays of metal rods, bolts, nuts, and gears spread over thankfully preassembled engines, in the same category as Fröbel's uniform slabs. Looking at shelf after hulking shelf, I imagine a time when every kid in America knew how to fit a bunch of gears together, and probably how to fix a carburetor, too.
That was never the case, but plastic toys have turned their predecessors into museum material. LEGO blocks offer limitless permutations of design, but their easy joining click makes structure a second thought. And the popularity of LEGO, whose high quality makes them a favorite of children and collectors alike, has narrowed the diversity of the arch-toy market.
But the joy of a collection of thousands of clippable, stackable, industrially printed pieces comes only partly from the subtle changes in building techniques from set to set. The way they were packaged and sold tells another story. The differences between Skyrail and Lincoln Logs, in appearance the two extremes of architectural toydom, one indulging in a pastoral American fantasy, the other imagining a brave new world, are mostly on the box. More than craftsmanship and construction, a history of American architectural toys is a social history.
This makes the idea of sequestering toys in a museum case significantly less perverse. The slogans are still fun behind glass. You could write a whole history of family dynamics on toy boxes. The blocks of Richter’s World War I-era “Fortress Series” set look just like the rest of the Anchor Blocks: it’s the handbook of diagrams for bunkers and gun turrets that makes it an important historical artifact. Likewise the blank, nameless box for the Modernist House and Garage is more fun (to me, at least) than the toy itself.
You could also argue that these old toys really are history now, relegated to the museum by the rise of computer and video games. Brick-and-mortar toys, particularly for older children, seemed outdated even 15 years ago. There were more complex worlds to be created in the virtual realm, where you could construct a higher building in SimTower, a bigger city in SimCity, an entire historical society in Sid Meier's Civilization. No more splinters, no more lost pieces.
These toys were the video games of their time, but they were also quite different. Video games of urban strategy and architectural construction are not group activities; the showmanship and collaborative invitation of these toys was unavoidable. They were meant to be enjoyed, if not also built, by brothers, sisters, and adults together. And construction was only half the game: once built, the Mysterious Walking Giant™ and the SkyRail Systems of Tomorrow weren’t just toys. They were trophies.
Selections from the Architectural Toy Collection will be exhibited in PLAY WORK BUILD at the National Building Museum beginning this November.
All images by Henry Grabar.